Cardinal sins of a clerical history that verges on hysteria

Nobody expects to come across the Inquisition alive and well in today's Vatican -- except hare-brained conspiracy theorists.
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The Inquisition by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (Viking, £16.99 318pp)

The Inquisition by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (Viking, £16.99 318pp)

THERE APPEARS to be a minor literary fashion for books about religious history that double as bitter attacks on the current pope. We have had John Cornwell's first-rate biography of Pope Pius XII: the pontiff, Cornwell shows unambiguously, who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. Now here is Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's history of the medieval Inquisition. Its last quarter suggests that, that far from fading away in the last century as has always been assumed, the fabled practitioners of divinely-sanctioned torture - with their racks and public pyres - are alive and kicking in the Vatican.

It's hard to know where to start with this utterly wrong-headed nonsense. In 1982, Baigent and Leigh joined with Henry Lincoln to produce The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a classic of conspiracy-theory history. It told of Christ's descendants by Mary Magdalene living in the south of France and running an 800-year-old secret society. Though most scholars disputed its facts, it sold 500,000 and paved the way for a boom in off-beat spiritual quests.

Given this background, I had expected Baigent and Leigh to have some crowd-pulling new twist up their sleeves to add to this already well-trodden tale. But no - they spend 150 pages giving an uncontroversial account of the Inquisition, from its 13th-century godfather Dominic Guzman, through the judicial murder of 30,000 women around the time of the Reformation as part of the churchorchestrated witch hysteria, and on to the notorious Spanish Inquisition, with its special message for the Iberian Jews. Convert, or die in agony.

The prose is clear if unambitious, a pleasant summary of others' historical scholarship. Baigent and Leigh begin to search for the sensationalist tone of old, however, when they get to the 19th century and the official end of the Inquisition. It was suppressed in Spain, for instance, in 1834. Yet they add without a word of explanation that its demise "left Spain in a condition from which she is only now beginning to recover".

Catholicism's secular authority collapsed when a reunited Italy annexed the Papal States in 1870. The authors argue that the papacy sought to compensate for the loss of territory with strengthened control over individual Catholics, by means of a renewed Inquisition - or, as it was then called, the Holy Office. There is nothing very new in this theory. The Index of Forbidden Books, for instance, continued until the 1960s - when it died of ridicule.

The authors build to a dramatic ending with a stinging critique of the policies of John Paul II and his "right-hand man", Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - head of the Holy Office, now rechristened the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All of their evidence has been cited elsewhere, while their parallels between the medieval Inquisition and the silencing of a couple of dozen radical theologians and priests fails to convince.

Yes, it is wholly deplorable that a bully like Ratzinger can clamp down on well-intentioned dissent in such an alienating way. But he cannot seriously be equated with the Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, who haunts Baigent and Leigh's imagination. Ratzinger's crusade is directed at a clerical elite who have challenged the status quo. The medieval Inquisition claimed as its victims ordinary people who had done no harm. Ratzinger's reign of terror - if such it is, and I have my doubts - targets theologians who have stepped out of line while fully aware of the consequences.

In both its aims, this book fails lamentably. As a history of the Inquisition, it is a smooth but hollow beginners' guide. As an analysis of what is wrong with the contemporary Church, it is a rehash of well-known incidents contorted to support a threadbare conspiracy theory.